Jacqui Hayes - Honours in Physics

Why do honours? If you are looking to improve your career prospects, open the door to further academic study, or simply indulge a passion, then honours is your next step. For many students, honours is an introduction to further academic research with many using it as a pathway to undertake a PhD. For others, it is a stepping stone to an interesting career in Science and an opportunity to extend one's knowledge on a topic that interests them. Read all about the highlights of Jacqui Hayes' honours year.

When did you start thinking about doing honours?

As soon as I started my science degree I knew that I wanted to do an Honours year. But I wish I had prepared for the research project. If I had my time over again, I would do a summer research project or one of the optional research projects in third year physics.

What influenced you to do honours?

I did Honours because I wanted to leave university with as many options as possible. I am still thinking about going back to university to complete a PhD or masters. Also, after three years I felt like there was still more I wanted to know about physics and I wanted to tackle my own project.

How did you go about finding a supervisor/project?

Take the time to find a supervisor who you get along with! A great supervisor can make a failed project good again, and a poor supervisor can ruin a great project.
At the end of third year the physics department handed out a booklet of possible projects in honours. I read through the booklet, circled the ones I found interesting and then spoke to the supervisors of each one. I found one supervisor who was excited about the project and could explain it to me without any jargon. Then I spoke to the supervisors’ ex-students. It’s good to know what they’re really like before you commit to a year-long project with them!

What was your honours project about?

I studied the tiny scales on the wings of butterflies and moths. These scales have microstructures that interact with light to produce stunning optical effects. I looked at the mechanical, optical and thermal properties of the structures.

Can you describe what the honours process was like, from the experimentation stage to writing up your thesis?

At first, I read a lot of scientific papers and just tried to figure out what was going on in the field I’d chosen. Then, with the help of my supervisors, we worked out what experiments to do. It took a while to figure out exactly how to do the experiments. Many times I did some testing, but got weird and unexpected results. This ended up being quite interesting when I figured out what was going on, but at first it was just frustrating. Once I figured it out, I got as much data as possible in about three weeks. Then I analysed all the numbers. Writing up the thesis took about two weeks and 20 L of coffee.

What were the highlights of your honours year?

  • The first time I realised that my project was going to have results that meant something.
  • Getting to know an area of science exceptionally well - knowing that you know a topic as well as some of the best scientists in the area is quite a satisfying feeling.
  • After my honours year, some of my research was written up into papers and published in scientific journals.

Did doing honours have any influence on where you’ve ended up after uni?

This is a difficult question to answer. Everything that I have done since uni I could have done without completing honours. But I believe that I do it better because of the experience.

What are you doing now?

I’m an assistant editor at Cosmos magazine. After I finished honours I did an internship at Cosmos and I continued to write stories for them. I took a job there after returning to Sydney last year.

Do you think honours is for everyone?

I think anyone can do honours. It can look intimidating from the outside, but if you are resilient you’ll be fine.